“Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!” But answering, Yeshua said, “I tell you that if these keep silent, the stones will shout out!” As He drew near and saw Jerusalem, He wept over her saying, “If only you had recognized this day the things that lead to shalom! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”(Luke 19:39-42, TLV)
My friend Kevin, in a group text we’re both part of, posed this question to us regarding Palm Sunday:
“Thinking on Palm Sunday in the age of Covid-19…. Luke 19:40 says, ‘I tell you’ he replied, ‘if they kept quiet, the stones themselves will cry out!’ What would stones sound like crying out? Since there can be no crowds this Palm Sunday, will the stones cry out? What would they say?”
The question has been rattling in my brain ever since.
What would the stones say?
The reference is to a passage in the book of Luke where Jesus begins his procession with his followers into the city of Jerusalem for the last time prior to his public execution.
In his commentary on Luke, British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright contends that the drama of the moment we now refer to as the Triumphal Entry is not accidental. That Jesus has orchestrated it for the specific reason of invoking Old Testament messianic prophesies.
So as Jesus prepares to enter the city to celebrate the Passover, he instructs two of his disciples to get a young donkey—one that’s never been ridden—for him to ride into the city.
And as he begins to do so, first his disciples and then crowds of local residents begin to wave their cloaks and lay them in the road (there’s no mention of palm branches in Luke’s recounting of the story), cheering him with words like “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens (Luke 19:38b, CEB).”
As the crowd grows and becomes more exuberant, the text says that some of the Pharisees, who were more or less the self-appointed gatekeepers of religious righteousness for the Jewish people, begged Jesus to quiet the crowds for fear the occupying Roman army would take their demonstration as a political rebellion.
And to be honest, they’ve got good reason.
Jesus’ actions, as Wright notes in his commentary, are very specifically coordinated…and not just for their fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy (specifically Zechariah 9:9).
The whole scene is also mocking the way “legitimate” royalty expected to be greeted upon entering the city, riding in triumphantly in full military regalia on a white horse over a road carpeted with subjects’ cloaks and various branches while chariots and armies followed behind.
The last thing the Pharisees want is a confrontation with Rome at Passover. A disruption of the status quo could interfere with their traditional celebrations of their most revered national and religious holiday.
Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus has consistently sidestepped the several messianic claims made about him.
So his response to the Pharisees might be a bit surprising: “I tell you, if these people were silent, the stones would cry out.”
The immediate implication is that what Jesus means here is that his messiahship should be so evident at this point that not just his followers, but the whole earth (indeed, as Wright notes, the whole cosmos) should recognize it.
But many scholars have pointed out that this response also echoes a line from the prophet Habakkuk:
“Alas for you who get evil gain for your house,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!”
You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
The very stones will cry out from the wall,
and the plaster will respond from the woodwork. (Hab. 2:9-11, NRSV)
In context, the prophet appears to have been critiquing the injustice of the Babylonian empire during its conquest of Judah, the southern kingdom of the divided nation of Israel, whose capital was Jerusalem.
It was an injustice so deep that even the buildings of the city (which were about to be destroyed) would cry out against it, according to Habakkuk.
So the fact that Jesus chooses this particular passage as a retort to the Pharisees is telling.
Jesus knows the confrontation is coming.
In fact, I think it’s safe to say that he also knows it’s necessary.
But while many among his followers would likely certainly have hoped he was critiquing Rome, it’s fairly clear that he was also critiquing their own religious leaders’ complicity in the oppression and injustice that Roman occupation inspired.
What would the stones say today?
Which brings me back to my friend Kevin’s question.
What would the stones say today?
Would they recognize the gravity of our present moment? The disruption of the status quo? The disturbance of our traditional Holy Week and Easter worship services?
Would they cry out against the injustice of an empire built on the backs of slaves? Of economic and political systems and structures that are explicitly designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many?
Would they shout out in opposition to the religious leaders who defy public health orders and who support a regime where material wealth is the highest value?
Would they scream their resistance to an unholy alliance of church and state where people of other faith traditions, people from other countries, people with brown skin, women, scientists, LGBTQIA+ people—basically anyone who dares question their self-anointed authority and “rightness”—are demonized and dehumanized?
In the midst of a global pandemic in the 21st Century, would the stones say,
“Alas, you who seek to profit from the illness and death of others,
you who seek to mislead the public in the name of economic benefit
and political expediency,
you who think yourselves untouchable by the consequences of your actions!
You have wrought your own reward
by excluding those you deem unworthy;
you have forfeited the very things you have sought to protect.”
In a point in time marked by national and global systemic injustice, would the very stones celebrate the entry of Jesus, the embodiment of peace and love, of mutual respect and dignity, of radical inclusion and justice?
If our voices are silent this Holy Week, will the stones themselves cry out?
What would the stones say?